The consumer is not necessarily looking for an experience that assuages their conscience. Our consumer is someone that wants a compelling, luxurious experience and – oh by the way, it’s a zero carbon footprint stay.
Tahiti-based luxury resort developer and co-visionary behind The Brando – Richard Bailey – on consumer experience, seawater air conditioning, and the future of Tetiaroa.
Mr. Bailey, you’re the brains behind some of the region’s most luxurious resorts. How did you get involved in the industry?
I got my start, well… I met a girl. It’s as simple as that. I fell in love with her and Tahiti. That was 30 years ago.
My background is in business and finance but when I first arrived in Tahiti, tourism was the main game. I started with the Tahiti Tourism Promotion Office and then worked for a Japanese company with a portfolio of hotels.
Was the Japanese company involved with issues of sustainability or did that come later on down the road?
At the Tourism Promotion office, I quickly realized that places like Tahiti were becoming rarer and that the future of tourism depended on preserving the islands’ natural beauty. In the tourism industry, one can make a very strong business case for sustainability vs. just doing the right thing. Do well by doing good.
It’s said that Marlon Brando asked you to help him fulfill his dream of creating a true eco-resort on his beloved island of Tetiaroa in ’99. How did that first conversation go?
The first call was out of the blue, really. But we had much in common. Both American. Both loved Tahiti. Both had Tahitian wives. He knew I was in the hotel/resort business, he thought he was in the hotel business or at least he wanted to be. He had discovered all of the challenges of sustainability and wanted to do something to preserve his island, to leave a legacy.
Did Marlon already have a vision for how to preserve his island or did you come up with the initial vision together?
The conversation with Marlon started really on a vision of sustainability and, for him, it was the natural beauty and cultural heritage of his island and fitting into the community, creating jobs and, of course, doing something that would be financially sustainable. His was a complete vision, including a research center and education for Polynesian youth.
The first meeting we had, he said, “It’s going to be great, we’re going to be autonomous in non-fossil, renewable energy.” I immediately dismissed AC as a possibility. Three-quarters of the energy most tropical properties use is for cooling. He said, “No, we have to have AC, but we are going to get it from the ocean” and introduced me to some engineers in Hawaii that were working on a concept to do exactly that. Ultimately, ours was the first application in the world of this technology. We knew that if we could figure out how to create a renewable AC source, the rest of our energy needs would be entirely manageable.
Talk to us about this seawater air conditioning (SWAC) for a moment. Understanding that the water is pumped out of the ocean at a certain temperature and returned at a slightly warmer temperature, are there any downsides to returning warmer water to the ocean?
Good question. The water comes up from 935m at 4.8 degrees C. We pipe it through our system, and it returns to the ocean at a depth of 60m and temperature of 12 degrees Celsius. At that depth the impacts are negligible in the immensity of the ocean. If anything, in a world where rising temperatures are damaging reefs, the effects are positive.
Very interesting. So now that 75% of your energy has been sourced using SWAC, what about the remaining 25%? We read something about coconut oil!
Yes, from the sun and from coconuts. Coconut oil is a perfectly legitimate bio-fuel and we use it to run our generators. Why is it carbon neutral? Plants absorb CO2 from the atmosphere when they grow and this is released to the atmosphere during combustion, so the effect is neutralized. And the rest or our electricity is supplied by solar panels.
Backing up for a moment, what ultimately drew you to the project?
You mean in addition to just the thrill of working with Marlon Brando? I mean, who wouldn’t? He knew this, of course, and played with that. He would pick up the phone and say “Who do you want to call? The President of the United States? There isn’t anyone I can’t get on the phone you know.” (laughs)
If your business is building resorts, you dream about having a project like The Brando and chances are you’re never going to get it. This is the project of a lifetime. So, I suppose it was the challenge of the thing and the dream of helping to realize Marlon’s great vision.
Tetiaroa is an island deeply rooted in the Tahitian psyche – for centuries the exclusive domain of Polynesian royalty. So it’s a Brando story, a technology story, a luxury story, but it’s also a Polynesian story, a cultural heritage story and a story of unsurpassed natural beauty. A lot of people are watching what you do, and you have to get it right.
With an opportunity such as this, what are some of the biggest misconceptions about your job as a developer?
When I tell people that I live and work in Tahiti, they’re like sure, sure. No one imagines serious work happens in paradise. In fact, we work very hard. We think about the kind of experiences we can create for our guests. It is a fun business though. How many businesses have the sole purpose of making people happy?
So we are not just sitting on the beach drinking cocktails, we’re constantly working on delivering the most compelling visitor experience possible for our guests.
Selling an experience, it’s a much different animal than selling tangible products!
Right. Leisure Travel is not something you choose on a shelf and hold in your hand and examine before buying. You’re buying the idea of something, not the something. You go on the internet, look at the pictures, imagine and project yourself into the experience. It lives in your mind for months before you actually see it. During that time anticipation builds your expectations. Then you experience it for maybe 10 days, and after that it again inhabits your mind as memories for years, the rest of your life really.
All these factors make our job that much harder. How do you live up to a person’s imagination? That’s the challenge we are constantly working with. Our customers are spending a lot of money and have high expectations – we have to deliver. We have a responsibility to make sure that we get it right. The key as in any business is to treat the customer as an end and not a means to an end – if you do that the rest pretty much takes care of itself.
How do you balance The Brando’s luxury offerings with minimal impact?
Actually, we don’t. I don’t believe in that. Our whole thesis is that we need to break the model that says more luxury means less environment and more environment means less luxury. We just need to throw that out and start over. In some sense, this is what we’re doing at The Brando.
The idea that it’s possible for someone to choose a luxury experience only because of its luxury attributes and not care about the sustainability aspect is an idea Marlon and I shared. The consumer is not necessarily looking for an experience that assuages their conscience. Our consumer is someone that wants a compelling, luxurious experience and – oh by the way, it’s a zero carbon footprint stay.
I believe you have to walk the walk rather than talk the talk. What we say about ourselves in terms of sustainability attributes is generally met with raised eyebrows anyway. Once the guest arrives they see this place; this dramatic scenery, unbelievably pristine nature. Their first thought is, “Wow this place can never change,” and they want to make sure it never does. You don’t think about that before arriving. People discover sustainability features on-site during their stay, but the purchase decision is driven by the promise of a very romantic, very compelling, very luxurious stay. Sell them that and then they discover that along the way they’ve had zero carbon footprint, this is the goal. They got everything they wanted, no compromise, and were far lighter on the environment then when in their own home. That’s what we’re trying to do.
I’m afraid we mustn’t rely on people doing the right thing. God bless those brave pioneers, but they are not going to change the world. What’s going to change the world is when people make decisions in their own self-interest that happen also to be good for the planet.
It sounds as though, at the core, you believe business owners are responsible for creating, as you said, a luxury-driven offering that has the secondary element of sustainability.
Yes, we have to invest in and create these alternatives. But the consumer is still the agent of change. No doubt about it. We can build whatever we want, but if the consumer doesn’t want it, then it’s not really “sustainable”, is it?
Can you speak a bit more about the on-site education process at The Brando?
When guests arrive, they discover for example that our air conditioning comes from the sea. Their next stop is typically the concierge to find out more. We have a short tour that explains the process. Then they start pulling on the string and all these answers tumble out. They find out about solar energy, coconut oil, waste management, how we manage water, our gardens, what we are doing for conservation, turtles, whales, crabs, birds, the fish population. How many staff we have, where they live, what their living conditions are. Questions we might ask about any community. We prefer that guests become drawn in by their own natural curiosity. And all staff members are knowledgeable to help guests learn about their surroundings.
What is the one thing that you hope guests walk away with? What would make you go, we’ve done our job?
Our guests should feel fulfilled, but also a little sad. Sorry to leave. They stepped out of their daily routine – got deeply back in touch with themselves, their loved ones and what’s most important to them. Now they’re going back to where they were before they had The Brando experience. If we’ve done a good job, they will be fulfilled, but also a bit blue, like they haven’t quite had enough.
Looking at the travel industry – the shifts, the trends, the world around you – what are you seeing today? What keeps you inspired?
It’s become very competitive out there, as you know. There are so many amazing experiences on offer, and so much information about them available to consumers. If you’re building a resort you better be thinking about how it’s going to be unique.
Also, distribution is becoming key, and is where technology is going to bring some big changes. When planning your vacation, you may know as much about your destination as your travel agent. The sheer quantity of information we have access to is changing the distribution process and, at the same time, what a travel agent can offer, you still want that human contact, that reassurance, and what a brand means. Social media will have an increasingly important role in distribution also.
So, where do you see it going?
It’s a gradual closing of what I call the “experience gap”. The gap between what you think you will get and what you actually get. It’s harder and harder to exceed guest expectations, to create that Wow Experience that comes from serendipity and astonishment. If you know everything in advance, then it’s harder to be surprised.
How do you think this will affect The Brando?
In our shrinking world, I think the future is bright for enclaves like The Brando and other Polynesian island destinations offering exclusive hideaway experiences with rich themes of cultural authenticity and natural beauty. I truly believe French Polynesia has huge potential in this regard.
You meet the relaxed, resourceful and mirthful Polynesians, you hear their joyful music and their lyrical language, you gaze out on that lagoon with its impossible shades of blue and green – these are the things we absolutely have to preserve. What kind of world will we live in when these sacred assets are gone?
And we can preserve them. It’s the people that actually are crazy enough to think they can change the world that do. Be crazy.
Are there any other hospitality companies that you’re keeping an eye on?
We’re definitely not the only ones doing what we do. That’s a very heartening thing. We are a charter member of National Geographic’s Unique Lodges of the World, for example. What a great collection. Very humbling being in the same group with these lodge owners. Lots of shared values among the members.
Looking to the future, are there any areas that you’re looking to further explore for the property?
These days we are working hard to develop the research station, managed by our non-profit Tetiaroa Society. Raising money for a non-profit is really just as much a business as any other. As an astronaut friend once pointed out to me, our planet is like an island and a small island is a microcosm for the planet. We have all of the planet’s problems of sustainability right at home on the small island of Tetiaroa. In the words of Teihotu Brando, “Save Tetiaroa, save the planet.”
MOVERS + MAKERS / conversations that fuel our vision.